The school shopping season has more or less come to a close, but there are still a few lessons brands can learn about back-to-school consumers for next year.
A $75 billion dollar industry, back-to-school shopping is a necessity for many American families. With both K-12 and college enrollment steadily increasing, it’s no wonder that the back-to-school shopping season is second only to the winter holidays. Fueling strong purchases of apparel and electronics, this new school year is giving brands an excellent opportunity to connect with consumers.
“Heading into the second half of the year, we are optimistic that overall economic growth and consumer spending will continue to improve as they did in the first two quarters of the year.”
This year, back-to-school buying is looking especially good for retailers. U.S. consumers are showing signs of increased economic confidence. “Families are still looking for bargains, but there are signs that they are less worried about the economy than in the past,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Heading into the second half of the year, we are optimistic that overall economic growth and consumer spending will continue to improve as they did in the first two quarters of the year.”
Back-to-school consumers are ready to start shopping, but how they shop is changing. Online and multi-device pathways are becoming the norm—affecting not just how, but when consumers shop. Consumers are becoming more thoughtful about the purchases they make. They’re spending more time researching before buying. The consumer population is also diversifying, signaling to brands a need to embrace a more modern view of what today’s family looks like.
Back-to-School Consumer Behavior
The National Retail Federation’s recent trends survey reported that consumers are increasingly shopping online for back-to-school needs. Last year, 40 percent of back-to-school searches were done on mobile devices. That figure has already increased another 10 percent this year. This year’s consumers are savvier about buying the right item at the right price. They are not afraid to wait out for the best deal before making their final purchase decision.
“The budget-conscious consumer is not forgetting about price, quality or value, and we continue to see this when it comes to back-to-school shopping,” Prosper Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow said. “That is why many parents are taking advantage of shopping early, scouring ads and websites for the best deals, and taking advantage of free shipping with online purchases.”
Mobile Changes Shopping Behavior
Back-to-school consumers are planning to do more comparative shopping this year. According the NRF survey:
- Nearly 40 percent of K-12 consumers are shopping for sales more often
- Almost 30 percent of K-12 consumers are using coupons more
- Nearly 30 percent of K-12 consumers are doing more comparative shopping
- A third of college consumers are shopping for sales more often
- Roughly 27 percent of college consumers are doing more comparative shopping online
As many Millennials are now parents to school-age children, retailers need their mobile and social media presences to be on point. A Deloitte survey found that 61 percent of parents will conduct research online before purchasing back-to-school products in a physical store. It’s typical for back-to-school consumers to already know exactly what they want–before they get to a store.
Social media is also becoming an integral part of the comparison shopping process. Users can easily turn to their social network to get product reviews and feedback from family, friends and influencers. People are increasingly looking to brand pages on networks like Facebook and YouTube to look up in-depth information and get special promotions on products they need.
Timing Your Marketing
Thanks to mobile, multitasking is helping consumers get a head-start on their back-to-school needs. Google Consumer Surveys reported that 80 percent of back-to-school consumers aim to complete their shopping in under just two weeks. Roughly the same percentage reportedly plan to shop at three or less stores. Consumers are becoming quicker and more efficient about their shopping, using spare moments throughout the day or in the evening while winding down to research what they need.
Consumers are shopping earlier than last year too. More than 70 percent of back-to-school shoppers will get their goods at least one month before the start of school. Back-to-college consumers will start even sooner–with more than a quarter of shoppers expected to buy at least two months before the fall term begins.
A Note on Diversity
It’s hard to talk about back-to-school shopping’s impact on brands without mentioning the growing diversification of American schools. Over the last decade, K-12 enrollment has increased nine percent and college enrollment has increased 17 percent (U.S. Department of Education). A recent survey on racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. show that the percentage of Hispanic school-age children (ages 5-17) has increased from 16 to 24 percent from 2000 to 2013. In addition, over the last 20 years, the largest increases in undergraduate enrollment at post-secondary institutions were observed for Hispanic (11 percent) and Black students (5 percent).
The changing numbers represent a shift not just in school populations, but in the changing demographics of American families. A study conducted by BabyCenter and YouGov found that 40 percent of families consist of “non-traditional” household archetypes including; single-parent households, cohabiting (non-married) parents, LGBTQ parents, mixed-race parents and households with a stay-at-home dad. As the American population continues to diversify, it’s imperative that brands market to these changing demographics.
Not surprisingly, the study also found that 80 percent of parents like to see diverse families in advertisements. More than half showed an appreciation for diversity was a considering factor when purchasing a product.
“With the paths through adulthood, relationships, and parenthood so diverse and potentially fluid, the time is right for brands to recognize and celebrate that diversity,” Ted Marzilli, CEO, YouGov BrandIndex. “That said, it is critical that brands appear authentic and the messaging reflects the values of the company. Balancing a message of inclusiveness while not alienating existing customers is a challenge for many brands.”
What Brands Can Do
It’s obvious that brands need to have a strong web presence, especially when it comes to mobile users. Research group Penn Schoen Berland found that around 60 percent of parents are planning to buy at least one thing on a mobile device and 30 percent plan to do at least a fourth of their shopping on mobile. Consumers’ desire for easy online shopping is reflected in the huge jump of Amazon’s share price, which has gone up more than 40 percent in the last year alone.
Consumers are also looking for hassle free shopping—and to integrate their online research with offline experience. More than 80 percent of back-to-school and college shoppers will use free shipping and more than half will buy online and pick up in-store.
Here are a few other ideas you can try to make their experience more efficient:
- Advertise discounts and savings throughout your website
- Create and promote back-to-school wishlists
- Feature landing pages with product recommendations and reviews
- Improve website search
- Integrate online and offline experiences like in-store pickup options
- Partner with influencers to promote products and services
As consumer populations grow and diversify and access to shopping changes, the consumer journey will continue to evolve. What brands need to do now is keep up.